Phantom of the Paradise (1974) / Musical-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for language, adult themes, and some disturbing imagery            Running Time: 92 min.

Cast: William Finley, Paul Williams, Jessica Harper, George Memmoli, Gerrit Graham
Director:  Brian De Palma
Screenplay: Brian De Palma
Review published December 16, 2003

Kind of an oddity in the De Palma (Dressed to Kill, Scarface) ouvre, as it's far different from anything he had done before or since.  A Rock Opera, as the saying goes, not too far removed from the crazy antics seen in later films like Rocky Horror Picture Show and Tommy, but the literary allusions alone are enough for it to stand out on its own.  It's a combination of many gothic classics, from "Faust" to "Frankenstein" to "The Picture of Dorian Gray" to, of course, "Phantom of the Opera."  It's an admirably ambitious work, with some good music provided by Paul Williams, who walked away with an Oscar for the score.

Williams (Smokey and the Bandit, Smokey II) plays a world renown record producer named Swan, a man that knows talent when he hears it, and isn't above stealing it to get it.  That's precisely what he does to up and coming talent Winslow Leach (Finley, Sisters), also taking away his love interest to boot.  Winslow tries to get it back, but Swan is powerful, and soon destroys his life until the point where he is reported as dead.  Actually, he was merely horribly disfigured, and soon returns to Swan's domain, the Rock house known as "The Paradise," where the two form an uneasy alliance to showcase their talent, and Winslow's vision of a rock opera based on "Faust." 

Although it is different in content from other De Palma works, the signature touches are all there.  Split-screen action, virtuoso camera work, and the usual homages to Hitchcock (a spoof of Psycho's shower scene) and Orson Wells (the bomb in the trunk nod to Touch of Evil.)  It's not big on stars, and was a pretty big flop when it was released in 1974, but that hasn't stopped the film from gaining a strong cult following over the years, and some even consider this to be De Palma's best.  I won't jump on that bandwagon, but it's clear there is a visionary director at work here, showing a raw, unfettered talent that would serve him well in later films where he was able to keep his focus.

Phantom of the Paradise isn't a great film, too sloppy and choppy to keep your interest in the story, but that's also part of its charm I suppose.  It's worth recommending for fans of De Palma or Paul Williams, but it's a must-see for any who love the Rock Operas of the 70s, as you'll probably savor every over-saturated second.

Qwipster's rating:

2003 Vince Leo